As many of you know, I lived in the Dominican Republic for about four years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. There were so many things about that experience that I could never have anticipated. But one of the things that surpised me most was the sheer amount of time that I spent during those four years eating mangoes.
I joined the Peace Corps straight out of college and I got sent to the DR as an education volunteer. I had all these big, romantic dreams of how I was going to make a difference and change the world, starting with the community center in the town where I had been assigned to work. I was a 22-year-old with a bachelor’s degree in music who had never lived anywhere outside of Nebraska. But I marched in there with confidence, completely convinced that I would know exactly how to help all the people of this poor, underprivileged, third world community.
My main assignment was to teach computer classes at the community technology center in town. And I really wanted to do a good job! So I carefully put together detailed lesson plans to help my students work through programs like Word and Excel and even Photoshop. I had everything laid out and ready. However, 9 times out of 10, I would get down to the center and the electricity would go out. Or it might even be out already by the time I got there. And let me tell you, it’s pretty hard to teach a computer class when you don’t have electricity.Continue reading “Sermon: The Fruit of Repentance Tastes Like Mango”
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.John 1:14
I still remember the first time I saw the movie Hairspray. The movie, based on a musical based on a movie, is set in the 60s and follows the adventures of Tracy Turnblad, an outspoken and overweight young woman in high school. Tracy is mocked and bullied by other students, but she never apologizes for her size; instead, she wins a spot on a local teen dance show and uses her influence at the studio to fight for racial desegregation. She insists on being accepted as she is, and she fights for a world in which no one is discriminated against because of what their body looks like. And at the end of the movie, she makes out with Zac Efron – what more could you ask?
I think I saw this movie in theater maybe three or four times. I cried every time. I can’t begin to tell you how profoundly moving it was to see someone who actually looked like me – a bona fide fat actress, jiggly arms and all – up on the big screen, as the protagonist of a movie. And while the movie does show Tracy and other fat characters struggling with the stigma against their weight, their stories are much richer than this one detail about them. And watching them, watching this movie, I felt truly seen for the first time. I felt like someone else finally thought a story like mine was worth telling.Continue reading “Incarnate Goodness”
According to Google Maps, it only takes around six hours to drive all the way from Coleridge, NE, to Davenport, IA. But what Google Maps doesn’t show you is how long that trip takes when you have three small children in the car. In my experience, it takes more like… nine hours.
The drive from Coleridge (my hometown) to Davenport is one my family used to make all the time when I was growing up. My mom’s family is all from the Quad Cities area, and so we used to make the drive out there at least a few times a year – especially around this time of year for the holidays. Mom and Dad and my younger brother and sister and I would all pile in the old Dodge Caravan and head east. It would still be a long drive even if you only had adults in the car – adults who can, in theory, hold it for six hours – and you’d still have to stop at least once for gas, especially back in the 90s.
But with three small kids in the car, forget about it. We stopped constantly. I am pretty sure I have been inside literally every single Iowa rest stop along I-80. We stopped at the World’s Largest Truck Stop in Walcott. We stopped at Adventureland in Des Moines. Whenever we stopped to eat, we almost always went through two or three different drive-thrus because each of us wanted something different to eat. And we always made sure to slow down while passing Adair, IA, so that we could wave at the water tower; it’s big and yellow and it has a smiley face painted on it, and somewhere along the way, we nicknamed it “Mikey” and decided it was our friend.
As kids, it’s not that we weren’t totally excited to get to Davenport to see our relatives – we were! But we were also interested in seeing just about everything else on the way.Continue reading “Sermon: Flyover Country”
This time of year was always super exciting to me when I was growing up. I freaking loved the holidays. I loved all the lights and glitter. I loved getting to gorge myself on green bean casserole and stuffing and pumpkin pie and candy and all the other rich foods my family cooks up this time of year. And of course I looked forward with excitement to getting presents – the more plasticky and garishly colored, the better.
But as I’ve gotten older, some things have changed. I still enjoy the feasting, though some of those rich foods now give me heartburn… or worse… And I’m still a sucker for lights and glitter and toys. But I find myself hungering for more. Now that I am all grown up and living alone, I find myself hungering for time spent with my family (which was something I totally took for granted when I was a kid). I hunger for love and connection and meaning.
I’ve learned that the superficial stuff that fed me as a kid just isn’t enough to satisfy me anymore. I am hungry for something more.Continue reading “Sermon: Hungry for More”
What do you think of when you hear the word “king”? What kind of images does that word bring to your mind?
Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, also known as Christ the King Sunday. But, reading a gospel text like this one, you might never guess that that was the case. In this passage from Luke, you don’t exactly find a lot of images that we might think of as “kingly”; there are no thrones or crowns or fancy clothes, no legion of knights – people don’t bow down before Christ or respect his power and authority. In fact, they strip him and beat him and mock him and give him sour wine to drink as he is literally tortured to death as a criminal.
It’s an absurd text for us to read today. Our other three texts sound much kinglier. From Jeremiah, we have:
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”Jeremiah 23:5
In Psalm 46, the psalmist writes:
“’Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.’ The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”Psalm 46:10-11
And in Colossians, we read that:
“[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.”Colossians 1:15-16
Now that sounds kingly AF!Continue reading “Sermon: Royally Absurd”
This is an Advent reflection I wrote for last year’s December newsletter.
The people who walked in darknessIsaiah 9:1
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
When I was in middle school, my family took a vacation to the Wisconsin Dells. It was a blast – we went on the duck boats and ate delicious fudge and had a great time. But one of the things I remember most from the trip was the visit we took to Crystal Cave.
I was a nerdy child with an interest in geology, so I was already excited to see the cave, which goes down over 70 feet below the surface of the earth. When we got down to the deepest, darkest part of the cave, our guide told us to stand still where we were and warned us not to move. Then he turned off the light. In an instant, the whole world blinked out of view. There was not a scintilla of light; it was darker than dark down there. I couldn’t even see my own hand when I waved it inches in front of my face!
Then there was a rasping sound in the darkness, and suddenly light exploded into being, reflected and refracted by the thousands of crystals that festooned the cavern’s walls. It was gloriously beautiful. I looked to see where the light was coming from, and saw our guide holding it in his hand. He had struck a single match. That tiny light was enough to light up what felt like the whole world.
This, in a nutshell, is Advent.Continue reading “Lighting Up the World”
It occurred to me as I was working on an article for my congregation’s December newsletter that I could be more diligent about posting some of my non-sermon writings on here. A lot of what I write is still church-related, though not all. And I plan to start sharing more of it in the hopes that it will be meaningful for other folks to read.
Continue reading “Dancing Together”
I am not embarrassed to admit that I spend a lot of time on social media, especially on Facebook. It allows me to keep in touch with friends and family who live all over the country; there are a whole bunch of different clergy groups where I can find support and camaraderie from other colleagues in ministry; and of course it’s a great place to find knitting and crochet ideas and cute pictures of cats, lol.
But I also get to see some really beautiful things happen on social media from time to time. There’s a whole informal network of people online who have found ways to help each other out. I think of it as a sort of Facebook “underground railroad.” A friend of someone’s friend reaches out asking for help, usually needing money, and this network mobilizes to respond. Last month, we helped a single mom in Chicago who was struggling after her car was impounded over a ticket. Earlier this year, I put the word out on facebook to help a friend of mine who was trying to escape an abusive partner. We raised over $6,000 for her in a matter of weeks.
There’s no formal organization at work here. It’s just a bunch of regular people who are connected by compassion, by the recognition that as humans we need each other and that none of us is in this alone. And the folks who volunteer their time and resources don’t ask a lot of questions about the requests that come through for help. People just trust that the need is there and they give if they can. And I often see the same people stepping up again and again to chip in and/or spread the word. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times the Facebook community gets called on or what else people have going on in their lives – someone is always ready to step up and help however they can.Continue reading “Sermon: Do Not Be Weary”
This is such an odd gospel text to have to preach on. I’ve been chewing on it a lot this week. This strange math problem that the Sadducees ask Jesus to solve has lots of details that sound just straight up bizarre to our 21st century ears. In a weird way, they’re asking him about the future, about what happens after we die. So, naturally, the thing it keeps making me think of is one of the most classic movie trilogies in all of cinema: Back to the Future.
Specifically, I keep thinking of Back to the Future II. Now, full disclosure, it’s been a while since I actually sat down and watched the whole movie. But the second movie of the Back to the Future trilogy is notable because, despite being a franchise that has “future” right in its name, Back to the Future II is the only movie of the series where they actually go to the future!
In the movie, our hero Marty McFly, his girlfriend Jennifer, and their pal Doc Brown travel forward in time to the far distant future year of… 2015! Woo! And watching it now, in the really distant future year of 2019, it’s pretty funny to look back and see what people in the 80s thought the future was going to be like.Continue reading “Sermon: They Will Neither Fax Nor Be Receivers of Faxes”
One of the actual classes I took in seminary was a pastoral care course called “Caring for the Dying and Bereaved.” That was a whole class. And as you can probably imagine, it was often pretty intense. One of the very first assignments that we had in the class was to write our own living wills. We had to put down in writing our wishes for what we wanted at the end of our own lives – things like what kind of medical treatments we did or didn’t want, who would make decisions for us if we couldn’t do it ourselves, what to do with the stuff we’d leave behind, even plans for our own funerals.
That on its own was already hard enough to do. But on top of that, we had to write our living wills as a letter to the person or the people in our lives who we would want to actually carry these instructions out. And then we had to let them read it and actually have a conversation with them about it. That was really, really hard.Continue reading “Sermon: A Matter of Life and Death”
This past Thursday evening, I went downtown to the After Hours at the museum annex to celebrate the grand opening of the museum’s newest addition: the Okey Room. Sadly, I got there too late to see the official ribbon cutting – but I did get there in time to get a thorough tour of the room from Mr. Lloyd Brichacek. It was very interesting! I never got to know Dr. Okey, because he died a few months before I moved to Schuyler, but it was fascinating to learn more about his veterinary practice. There was a lot I didn’t know. Even though I grew up in Nebraska, I was a “town kid” – so a lot of the instruments in the exhibit were new to me; and some of them were downright horrifying. (Although I have to admit that I did find the bloat needle a little bit amusing – I’m not to old to laugh at the idea of a mechanically assisted cow fart.)
But Lloyd said something during the tour that kind of stuck with me. He made the comment that Dr. Okey himself probably would have been really surprised to see the exhibit. He would have been surprised to see all his veterinary tools laid out so neatly on shelves in a museum, each with its own little label to explain what it was used for. For 54 years, he’d just been doing his job. The objects in this museum exhibit were just the tools of his daily life. They were just part of the messiness and unpredictability and craziness that I would imagine comes with being a veterinarian in rural Nebraska. He probably didn’t think of his own life as “history” to be preserved in a museum.
I don’t know about you all – but I am already feeling sick and tired of the 2020 election – and it’s still over a year away! Now, I consider myself to be a pretty civic-minded person, and I definitely think it’s important to engage in the political process, but this election season has been over the top. It’s only October 2019, and there have already been six primary debates! That is absurd. I am already seeing campaign ads all over facebook and TV, and even getting campaign texts on my phone. I went back through my email and counted up over 30 campaign related emails that I received in just one 24 hour period! That is waaay too many.
Even if you’re not that plugged into what’s happening with the election, it’s almost impossible not to be aware of it. The candidates and their teams are relentless about keeping their campaigns in the public eye.
And even though I am already annoyed by this election season, with over a year still to go, I have to admit: I get it. I get the passion and the need for persistence. I myself have even worked on a few political campaigns in the past – I have been one of those annoying people making phone calls and knocking on doors. Obviously, I didn’t do it to be annoying. I did it because I really believed in the candidates I was supporting, and I was passionate about the issues they represented. And when you really believe in something, you push for it, you fight for it, even if it means being a little obnoxious.
When I was growing up, I used to spend a lot of time up in South Dakota. My hometown is just under 40 minutes away from Yankton, and we used to go up there to the river all the time, especially up by Gavin’s Point Dam. I have so many fond childhood memories of going up to the river. We’d load the fishing poles in the back of the van and throw some ice in the cooler and head up to go fishing and camping every summer. Every Fathers Day, the whole family would go up to the river to have a big picnic. And as I got older, my best friends from high school and I used to go swimming and canoeing up there in Lake Yankton all the time – I still remember getting stuck and having to drag that silly canoe through knee-deep mud! I loved going up to the river. To me, it has always been a beautiful and peaceful and special place.
A few weeks ago, I got to go back to visit. My brother Ben was in town, visiting from California, and he brought his girlfriend Monique with him so she could meet the family. And Ben wanted to show her around the places where he grew up – so naturally, we had to take her up to Yankton to go visit Gavin’s Point!
This is a pretty geeky way to begin a sermon, but here goes: Spiderman is the story of a boy named Peter Parker, a teenager with strange, spider-like powers. Peter was just leading a normal life, growing up with his Uncle Ben and his Aunt May, when of course one day, he is bitten by a radioactive spider and starts developing superpowers. As one does.
Anyway, Uncle Ben and Aunt May start noticing some changes in Peter – he starts pulling away from them, he gets into fights at school, he even joins a fighting ring to make money – and his aunt and uncle start to get worried about him. So one day, Uncle Ben sits Peter down for a little heart-to-heart chat – and what he says to him basically becomes the moral for the whole Spiderman universe. He tells him: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Uncle Ben doesn’t fully understand the changes that Peter is going through, but he does see that his nephew has some kind of gifts – gifts that he could be using to help the weak and vulnerable, but that instead he’s using for his own gain.
With great power comes great responsibility. I kept thinking of those words from Uncle Ben as I was reading through our texts for this week. At least two of our readings speak about the great power that we have been given – the power of faith. Granted, faith doesn’t give us flashy powers like being able to shoot webs out of our hands or leap tall buildings in a single bound – but I’d argue it’s still pretty awesome.
“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced – even if someone rises from the dead!” As I’ve been reading this gospel lesson this week, with all of this talk of greedy rich men and people rising from the dead to warn others, I have found myself thinking a lot of the story of “A Christmas Carol.” Judging by this gospel reading, I think it’s safe to say that if Jesus Christ had been the one to write A Christmas Carol instead of Charles Dickens, the story would have ended very differently.
There are actually some striking similarities between our gospel reading for today and the story of A Christmas Carol. This reading is almost like an alternate universe version of that story. In A Christmas Carol, there is a rich man who dies, and in this case, it is a man named Jacob Marley. Like the rich man in the gospel story, Jacob Marley lived a life of selfishness and greed, totally oblivious to the suffering of his neighbors. And like the rich man suffering in hades, we also get a glimpse of Marley being tormented after he dies – he is doomed to wander the earth weighted down with heavy chains.
Of course, there is one major difference between this gospel passage and A Christmas Carol: unlike the rich man in Luke, Jacob Marley is allowed to go and try to warn his former partner of what awaits him in the afterlife. And that’s where the story really begins. Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley’s former partner, is visited by Marley’s ghost. And in the same night, he is also visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. This is a serious wake-up call for Scrooge. He is shown a bleak vision of what the future holds for him on his current self-serving path. And he’s also shown the love and joy and relationship that he is missing out on by only ever looking out for number one. To use the language of our second reading, he catches a glimpse of what Paul calls “the life that really is life.” And Scrooge realizes that the life he’s been living looks nothing like that.
A friend of mine – who is also a pastor – recently sent me a really fascinating article about the role that knitting played in World War I and World War II. Like most of you, she knows I am a huge crafts nerd, especially when it comes to knitting and crochet, so she knew this would catch my interest
In this article, the author wrote about how women working with the Allied powers actually used their knitting to help fight the war. You can easily imagine that women did things like knitting hats and scarves and socks for the troops, but this article focused on women who actually used their knitting for espionage. Continue reading “Sermon: Stinker Steward Granny Spy”
Has anyone here ever heard of the board game Betrayal at House on the Hill? I’ve been a little bit obsessed with this game lately – it’s really fun! It’s a game for 3-6 people; you play different characters who are exploring a haunted house together. You randomly flip over tiles to “discover” different rooms, so the house and the game itself are totally different every time you play.
At some point during the game, one of the players will trigger the second stage of the game, which is called the “haunt.” Depending on how the haunt gets triggered, you then play out one of 50 possible scenarios – you might find yourself in a house overrun with zombies or on the run from a supernatural serial killer, or even facing off in a chess match with death itself!
But what is really unique about Betrayal is that in almost every scenario, one of the players will become a traitor. Whoever that person is receives their own separate set of instructions – and from that point forward, they actively work against all the other players in the game.
It is a really fun and engaging game. But it can also be really frustrating sometimes. Since the game is so different every time you play, there’s always the danger that it will be really skewed in favor of either the heroes or the villain. And even on top of that, I have played scenarios in which I was the traitor and part of my instructions literally told me to cheat. Because of these things, the game can sometimes get a little heated – tempers can start to rise when players feel like the game is treating them unfairly.
If you ever look closely at my hands and forearms, you’ll notice that there are quite a lot of little scratches and scars on my skin. That is because I have cats! And they can be a bit of a handful sometimes.
For example, my oldest cat, Iago, is 13 and he haaaaates having his claws trimmed. He was born a feral street cat and he immediately freaks out any time he feels like someone is trying to trap him or hold him down. It doesn’t matter how I try to do it. He squirms away and yowls at me when I try to get him to sit still and let me trim them. He snaps instantly awake if I try to do a sneak attack while he’s napping. And even if I pick him up and hold him so he can’t run away, he crunches up his abdominal muscles and scratches at my arm with his back feet until I let him go.
It’s like he forgets how much happier he is when his claws aren’t so long that they click on the floor when he walks and get stuck in things. It’s like he forgets that he’s known me for over ten freaking years and that I’m where the kibble comes from!
But I love that little stinker. We’ve been through a lot together. He was my Peace Corps cat in the Dominican Republic, and it was a huge hassle to get him back to Nebraska. But I was happy to do it, because I love him.
Several months ago, back in May, I gathered with some of my colleagues from around the synod for our First Call Theological Education conference, up at the St. Benedict retreat center. One of the things we did together that was really helpful was that we went through almost all the gospel texts for the entire season after Pentecost, which is like half the church year. Our presenter, Dr. Rick Carlson, was a professor out at the Gettysburg Lutheran seminary before accepting a call at First Lutheran out in Kearney – so he really knows his stuff. He had some really great advice for how to preach on our gospel text for this morning; he told us: “This is a great Sunday… to be on vacation.”
Can you think of a time in your life when you felt really, really homesick? You know that feeling of longing deep in the pit of your guts? It’s that longing to be home, the longing to be someplace where you feel like you belong.
I don’t know about you all, but that’s definitely something I’ve felt at different times in my life. For many years, I was basically a nomad, just moving around from place to place. And there were a lot of moments in there where I felt sad: missing home, missing the people that I know.
When I was very young, my home congregation actually had a pretty good sized Sunday School program. Once a month, they would gather us all together in the basement for an assembly. We sat in neat rows, from the little preschool kids in the tiny folding chairs at the front, all the way to the big, cool ninth-graders in the back, in their last year of confirmation. I don’t remember a ton of what we did together, if I’m being honest. I’m sure we sang songs and read scripture and all that good stuff.
But the one part of those assemblies that has burned itself forever onto my brain was the part where we took the offering. Every month, in Sunday School, we would pass the basket down our neat little rows. And the reason I remember it so well is because we always sang the same verse of the same hymn:
We give thee but thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is thine alone:
A trust, O Lord, from thee.
I think I was in maybe third grade when I first learned the Lord’s Prayer by heart. I liked it because it was pretty simple and straightforward. Though, if I’m honest, I think I mostly liked it because it was a lot shorter and easier to memorize than the Apostles’ Creed! These words have been with me for a long, long time, as I’m sure they have been with many of you.
However, for me, that deep familiarity can also mean that it’s easy to look at this gospel text – which is one of the places in the gospels where the Lord’s Prayer appears – and think to myself, “Ok, yeah, I know pretty much what this text is about. This’ll probably be a sermon about the importance of prayer.”
But the more I read over this text this week, the more I noticed how annoying it actually is. Almost everything and everyone in this passage is incredibly rude!
Many years ago now, when I was in college, I spent a couple of summers working as a camp counselor at Camp Carol Joy Holling. I remember my very first summer at camp; I was a nervous wreck. I just wanted so badly to do a good job and to make the experience as special as I possibly could for these kids.
One of my first weeks at camp, I was placed with a very special little tribe of seven campers, whom I counted like this: three girls, three boys, and Kenny. Kenny was a sweet boy who had some attention and learning difficulties. He tried to stay focused and sit still, but it was hard for him, especially during bible study and worship. But Kenny brought two important gifts to camp with him: immense creativity, which he liked to express through drawing, and a passionate, undying love for the Lego story franchise Bionicle.